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After the Overwatch League grand finals, the league prepares to finally go global

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The 2020 season will look very different

Photo: Robert Paul / Blizzard Entertainment

The Vancouver Titans will face off against the San Francisco Shock in the Overwatch League grand finals this Sunday at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia. The championship is a big day for the burgeoning e-sports league, pitting the two most dominant teams in the game against one another.

But an arguably even more important milestone happened earlier in the week — and it took place across the street. On Wednesday, the Philadelphia Fusion — the city’s OWL team — held a groundbreaking ceremony for Fusion Arena, a $50 million e-sports complex that will eventually become the team’s home ground.

It’s the first such purpose-built facility in OWL, but it likely won’t be the last. The finals are just days away, but the league is already gearing up for its next season, when teams will all host games in their own cities for the first time. All told, 52 events will take place across 19 cities and three continents, and plenty of work to pull that off is already under way. “From where we sit here in September, 2020 looks like it’s going to be amazing,” says OWL senior director Jon Spector.

Having city-based teams was always the ultimate goal for OWL, but it took some time to get there. During the league’s inaugural season, all matches were played out at Blizzard Arena in Burbank, California. For season two, most of the games took place at Blizzard Arena, but the league also experimented with three “homestand weekends” where teams in Dallas, Atlanta, and Los Angeles hosted matches at venues ranging from a minor-league hockey arena to a concert hall. For the third season in 2020, things are going a step farther, as all games will follow this home stand model, with teams hosting league matches for at least two weekends each, and in some cases as many as five.

Fusion Arena
A rendering of Fusion Arena.
Image: the Philadelphia Fusion

It’s not quite true home-and-away matches like you’d see in the NBA or NFL, but it’s a start. Thirteen of the league’s 20 teams have started selling tickets, and the current slate of home venues varies quite a bit. The Toronto Defiant will play out of Roy Thompson Hall, a 2,600-seat concert hall, while the Titans will play out of 18,000-seat Rogers Arena, home to the NHL’s Vancouver Canucks. (The Canucks and Titans are owned by the same company.)

Spector says “demand has been really good” for tickets so far and that, while some teams have yet to announce a venue or start selling tickets, everything is running fairly smoothly. “There’s no situation where we’re sitting here on the league side nervous about, ‘Oh they have an event in a couple of months and they haven’t figured it out,’” he explains. “But we are in a good place today where teams are working on specific plans.”

The purpose of the three home stand weekends this year was so the league and teams could learn about the logistics of staging OWL matches in different locations. But 2020 will present even more challenges — and not just because there will be so many more games. So far, every OWL match has taken place in the US. But season three will also include games in China, Korea, Canada, France, and England. “There’s a lot that’s going to be challenging logistically next year,” Spector says. “Travel is going to be a challenge, and with travel comes immigration and visas and customs.”

Spector says that the league specifically designed the season three schedule to allow teams more time to deal with those kinds of travel demands. They also had to come up with a solution for practice. If a team from Seoul lands in London a few days early, how are they supposed to get in games before the weekend? According to Spector, host teams will all have to devise a solution and provide a practice location for visiting teams. And those are just two expected examples of the issues the league will have to contend with moving forward, with many more unforeseen hurdles likely to arise in the lead-up to and during the launch of season three.

Overwatch League Photo: Patrick Dodson for Blizzard Entertainment

Of course, OWL isn’t the only league trying to make a traditional city-based e-sports model catch on. The upcoming Call of Duty World League, which is under the same Activision Blizzard corporate umbrella as OWL, will also be launching in 2020, with 12 teams playing out of 11 cities in four countries. The two leagues don’t just share similar ambitions, but also many of the same ownership groups and locales. Because of this, Spector says that the two leagues will work together when and where it makes sense.

“In a lot of cases, it’s even the same people working on both in places where there are clear economies of scale, like the travel issues or the IT issues,” he explains. “Both leagues are facing very similar problems, and so many of the IT professionals who support Overwatch League are also lending their talents and supporting the efforts for Call of Duty League. We as a company are doing everything we can to create opportunities for those different leagues to learn from each other, but ultimately to build properties and leagues that are specific to their games and their fanbases.”

The 2020 season will be an important one for OWL, but it’s also just a step, as the league isn’t yet at its final goal of true home-and-away matches. And it’s unclear when that might finally happen — though much of it likely depends on how season three goes. “We still have our north star of what we’re looking to build towards, and 2020 is a big step in that direction,” Spector says. “But exactly how we continue to evolve, it’s premature for me to speculate on that.”